Academic Asides: Parentheses, Dashes, or Commas?

You probably know you should set off parenthetical expressions with a comma, as in this example:

The participants, 300 women who ejaculate with orgasm, agreed to an electronic chat interview and a videotaped masturbation session.

But what about parentheses? It’s called a parenthetical expression after all! Can we set off the same parenthetical expression within parentheses? And what about dashes? What’s the difference?

Sure, you could go ahead and use parentheses or dashes in the example above. It would look like this:

The participants (300 women who ejaculate with orgasm) agreed to an electronic chat interview and a videotaped masturbation session.

The participants–300 women who ejaculate with orgasm–agreed to an electronic chat interview and a videotaped masturbation session.

But it wouldn’t be quite right. Commas, parentheses, and em dashes each have their particular meanings.

Use comma to set off a parenthetical expression that requires only a slight break. That is, the parenthetical expression flows well as part of the greater sentence, as in our original example.

The participants, 300 women who ejaculate with orgasm, agreed to an electronic chat interview and a videotaped masturbation session.

Use em dash to set off a parenthetical expression that requires a strong break because it amplifies or explains something or because it is sudden:

The participants–we call them participants rather than subjects–agreed to an electronic chat interview and a videotaped masturbation session.

Use parentheses to set off a parenthetical expression that requires a strong break and is not  as closely related to the rest of the sentence:

The participants (further described below) agreed to an electronic chat interview and a videotaped masturbation session.

You can use all of these punctuation marks to set apart parenthetical expressions in your writing. Ask yourself, does this expression flow with the rest of the sentence? (Use comma.) Does it add sudden amplification? (Use em dash.) Or is it not very closely related to the rest of the sentence? (Use parentheses.)

The Sexy Grammarian offers Free Sexy Grammar Lessons as well as Private Lessons, Custom Edits, and Intimate Workshops for all kinds of writers. Get a Free Private Lesson today and watch your writing project explode!

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    • Melanie Gonzales Stuckenberg
    • January 20th, 2012

    Thanks, Kristy! Keep ’em coming…

  1. Thanks for reading, Mel. And yes, I intend to!

    • Norm
    • January 30th, 2012

    Dear Sexy Grammarian,

    In my daily writing, I use a lot of parenthesis. Your explanation helped me understand when to use them better, and I think I use them appropriately most of the time. They help express the little voice inside my head that adds random, but related, thoughts to a cogent sentence. Therefore, I relegate that little voice to its own punctuational prison (can I say that?).

    Case in point, how do I punctuate the last sentence correctly? With commas and em dashes, I’m confident about the use of sentence-ending punctuation. With parenthesis, I’ve created a consistent method, as demonstrated, but I’ve always wondered (and been far too lazy to investigate) if I punctuate it correctly.

    Yours (parenthetically),
    Norm Howard

    • My darling Norman-
      I like your use of parentheses better in your second paragraph than your first, but I do adore the idea of a punctuational prison. As prisons go, the punctuational sort may be the least oppressive.

      Here’s what I don’t like about the parentheses in that sentence:

      First, why do you need parentheses at all? The phrase can I say that? isn’t an aside but a question that follows a statement. Why not do it like this?

      Therefore, I relegate that little voice to its own punctuational prison. Can I say that?

      Second, far as the punctuation goes, you’ve got too much of it piled up at the end of the sentence. In general, there’s no need to double up the punctuation at the end of a sentence, even when it ends with parentheses. Whenever your parenthetical expression forms a whole sentence unto itself, consider letting it be a whole sentence unto itself. Let it out of prison, and you won’t have so many punctuation marks standing around like bored prison guards.

      Thanks so much for your question! I hope this helps.

    • Norm
    • February 2nd, 2012

    It was so fun to write my little question and receive your answer. It looked like you had fun writing it, as well. I love the image of sentence-ending punctuation standing around like bored prison guards.

    I’m not sure if I feel comforfortable letting that little voice out of prison just yet. It might start a free-flow crime spree of run-on sentences and misplaced phrases — something that doesn’t belong in the tidy, gated thought community that established itself in my brain. However, because of your “testimony”, I will put that little voice up for a parole hearing and determine if it has reformed enough to walk the streets of my imagination.

    Thanks, Sexy G, for representing the little voice when nobody else would!

  2. Dearest Norman,
    It’s true, I do love questions on the blog and the opportunity to explore the grammatical interests of my community–writers like you. What else do I love? I love a well-extended metaphor. Of all the things in the world a writer can extend, that’s one of the finest, and you have done it beautifully. Thanks for your comments.
    xo

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